Canon Entry - The Act of Killing (2012)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
Privilege is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot, especially when people talk about the existence of inequality. It’s hard for a lot of people to determine whether or not they have privilege because you only really know you have it once it is taken away from you. And certain types of privilege you will never really be stripped of, such as your race.
The Act of Killing demonstrates what happens when someone has so much privilege that they could literally get away with murder. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian director were getting nowhere trying to make a documentary about the mass genocide in Indonesia in 1965-1966 from the victims’ perspectives since the Pancasila Youth (basically Fascist Boy Scouts/National Guard which will feature prominently in this film) would constantly interfere with their filming. So the victims suggested that they go to the actual perpetrators of the violence and hear the story from them instead.
These men were hired thugs who were willing to do anything for power, influence and fame. Calling them thugs is not an exaggeration. An often repeated mantra is that “gangster means free man,” (from the Indonesian word vrijman, which came from the Dutch word for “free man”), and all these men are quite vocal and even proud of the heinous acts of violence that they committed in the name of wiping out “communists,” which even these men admit was just a label for anyone who opposed the dominant regime. Since these men were responsible for bringing the current regime to power, they are nearly untouchable.
One of the signs that you are in power is your ability to control the narrative. Several characters comment on this directly, including a newspaper editor who admits that he would make “communists” say whatever suited the political agenda that he was following. The other, more bizarre way this need to control the narrative manifests itself is through the short films that pay homage to multiple movie genres: noir, thrillers, war movies, even musicals. The directors even go so far as to help these men bring their fantasies to life by including gorgeously shot scenes that reenact stories that these men tell about killing and torturing their enemies. Of course, these self-aggrandizing scenes are quite obvious in their intent, and they come off as grotesque.
Even more insidious is the idea that these men not only control the narrative, but they get to live it as well. A particularly shocking scene in this movie is not one of the many scenes that will provoke anger in any sensible, somewhat moral person, but a seemingly unflashy scene when two of the men, Anwar Congo and Herman, are in front of a movie theater. They start off by recounting their origins as low-level gangsters scalping tickets for popular movies, especially American ones. Then they reminisce how they would come out of certain movies, especially Elvis ones, in a upbeat mood that would accompany them as they killed people quite gruesomely. A scene like that would be Tarantino’s (or one of his lesser imitators’) wet dream, but these men got to live their fantasy.
I find this scene so unsettling because, on a basic level, everyone is acting in their own movie. Even if we don’t kill anyone after seeing La La Land, we watch and maybe love movies for the same reason these men do - movies are accessible ways of getting into certain mindsets and moods.
Not that they need an escape to feel that they are empowered. These men get to live their fantasies because the whole of Indonesia will accommodate them no matter what they say or do. We see a man sexually harass a female caddy on the golf course, and all she can do is smile awkwardly. One of the murderers is shown with his wife and daughter. He looks like any bored dad who puts up with his family with lighthearted exasperation as they take selfies and make duck faces. We see scenes of him and his family at the wall narrated by his voiceover detailing the gruesome ways that he killed people.
These men have so much privilege that they are basically living in their own movies. So it’s actually a little strange while they felt the need to glorify themselves even further by creating these short films. Perhaps the reason these men gave these filmmakers so much access was not just because they knew they would not face repercussions for telling the truth but because they now had the chance to commit their own viewpoints and mentalities and make them universal - that somehow the world would still be theirs even after they died.
While many of the men seemed to have gotten rid of the cognitive dissonance that should have been plaguing them, we do get to see some of them struggle. We also find out that they are not stupid or even wilfully ignorant . To get where they were not only required a ruthless desire for killing, but also a sharp understanding of human behavior, even if they rarely turn this lens on themselves. One of the men calls out a Pancasila rally as being all show and admits that the people who showed up were paid to be there. A particularly despicable specimen boasts about raping young girls, some as young as fourteen and declaring to his victims “it will be hell for you, but heaven for me.”
And then there is Anwar Congo. The closest that this documentary has to a protagonist, Anwar was the right person to focus on. His personable nature contrasts deeply with his boasts about how effectively he killed over a 1,000 people. He is the catalyst behind the reenactments and even gives input on how exactly he would strangle or torture someone. Some people have had an issue with the ending when Anwar becomes physically ill after seeing one of his reenactments. The believe that a monster like Anwar does not deserve redemption of any kind. I cannot fault them for believing this, but I think it would have been dishonest to not include that scene. Just because we see him making a gesture for repentance does not mean we have to accept it. Also, perhaps we are disturbed because our tendency to reduce, to label someone as just one thing, is being challenged with this scene. That same tendency to reduce and judge instantly, complexity be damned, is the reason for the 1965-1966 killings in the first place. We can and should have a complicated reaction to this documentary. The act of killing is unforgivable, but the act of wrestling with the narrative one has constructed for oneself is something that anyone can respond to.